April 14, 2008 — On Friday, April 18 in Old Cabell Hall Auditorium, the University of Virginia Jazz Ensemble presents "Speaking in Tongues," an evening of big band jazz and poetry. The ensemble's spring concert will feature several original works for big band and readers, by the group's director, trumpeter/composer John D'earth.
D'earth has a long-standing affinity for incorporating the spoken word into jazz performances. He has worked on several pieces with U.Va. poet Gregory Orr, and is the music director for the jazz/poetry project, which plays for poetry readings. "It interests me," D'earth said. "In earlier jazz, the lyrics of songs told very specific stories. They delivered specific images, and the musicians played off of that imagery.
"I love poetry. It has always seemed natural to put poetry and music together, since our earliest epics. But it doesn't always work. It's a voyage of discovery, to find a place where the poetry and the music fit, and both can be understood."
For this concert, D'earth revisits a collaboration from several years ago with poet Margo Figgins, a professor in U.Va.'s Curry School of Education and founder of the renowned Young Writer's Workshop. D'earth's piece, "Road to Another Life," is based on a poem by Figgins. It is a kind of operetta for big band and reader describing a harrowing, Dante-esque journey from Buenos Aires, Argentina, up the Pan American Highway to Laredo, Texas. The flight was undertaken by the poet and her 2-year-old son to escape an Argentinean coup and to separate from her former life.
The poem's politically charged observations of places and events emerge from stark, telegraphic images of stops along a way that are full of danger and potential evil. "Margo's language is so clear," said D'earth. "It gives the improvisers in the band a deeper level of association to draw upon when they play. Jazz is all about emotion — 'telling your story,' as the old-timers would put it. Here's a story that makes you feel something, and it connects out to events in the world at large, our world of today's headlines. It makes the music stand for something, maybe count for more."
D'earth said he has two goals for this concert: that the poems are intelligible and clear, and that the presence of poetry will bring out the individual voices of all the members of the band.
"Even though I'm writing a lot of this music, this will be the players' concert. I'll be writing it that way," he said. "We've always encouraged creativity in this band. Everyone's invited to write and everyone who is willing to solo will solo. We love the tradition, but we know how to move away from it, too. This is jazz — do anything, everything!
"We have so many wonderful players that I can't wait for people to hear. And they will be featured throughout the concert in counterpoint and musical conversation with the poems being read."
The tongues that will speak the poems for "Speaking in Tongues" belong to Figgins, who will read her own "Road to Another Life"; former U.Va. music student, percussionist and poet Matt Wyatt; and D'earth himself.
D'earth will perform the role of reader in "Ephemora," a setting for three sonnets written by his brother, the formalist poet Paul Smyth, who died in December 2006 and whose last collection of verse, "A Plausible Light" (El Leon Press) recently appeared in print. The piece will feature fourth-year trumpeter Dean de la Peña, a Jefferson Scholar who has long been a featured soloist and an ad hoc assistant director with the Jazz Ensemble .
"I've tried unsuccessfully, for years, to think of ways to musically work with my brother's highly formalistic poetry, because I love it and I think it can be done, even with jazz, or, especially with jazz," said D'earth, "And I think I figured something out: that the poem has to be notated as an integral part of the groove and of the piece, as specific as a melody, and as loose; either written out, or read, improvisationally, in a very specific rhythm and placement.
"Then the challenge is to elide the words, when reading, so it doesn't sound like chanting. It turns into 'speaking the groove,' so to speak. I've been having some success with this and I want to try it more, so I guess I'll have to be the one to read it. It's an experiment. It'll be fun to see it succeed and/or fail.
"The band and I have been developing all of this music together over the last few weeks. What we come up with after the upcoming weeks will be very much a group effort and a one-time-only musical experience."
The U.Va. Jazz Ensemble is expecting a few surprise guests for the concert, especially of the percussive persuasion, since Matt Wyatt's three poems deal almost exclusively with drums, drummers and drumming.
First-year drummer Jack Kirby will drive the band along with young percussionist Andrew Kirk, who plays with D'earth professionally and has been helping with rehearsals.
The ensemble recently hosted a residency and concert with the world-renowned saxophonist David Liebman, who inspired a surge in creativity for the whole band. According to D'earth, "We're reaping the benefits of that, now, in this concert. It should be a memorable night."
The concert is at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 18 in Old Cabell Auditorium. Tickets for the concert can be purchased from the Cabell Hall Box Office at 434-924-3984. Tickets are $10 for the general public, $5 for students and 5ARTS$ for U.Va. students. Doors open at 7:15 p.m.